John Gavazzoni
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The Nature of the Atonement
By John Gavazzoni

(The following was an answer given by John to a question from a brother in Christ re: what he believes to be the scriptural view of the atonement as provided by God our Father, through His Son Jesus Christ.)

Hi brother! I promised to clarify for you my understanding of the nature of the atonement. It is not, of course, the necessity or efficacy of God's atoning work in Christ that I reject—God forbid—only the particular theory of the atonement which in my early mentoring was called "Vicarious, substitutionary atonement." I will be taking great care to express myself as clearly as possible, and ask that you read the following with the same care.

In soundly evangelical scholarly circles, it has to be acknowledged that this particular theory on the atonement, considered in the context of historical Christianity is, in fact, just one of the several, if not many theories proposed down through the centuries to explain the nature of what God accomplished by the suffering and death of His Son. It would be agreed by all, I’m sure, that reconciliation lies at the heart of "the Christ event," up to, and including Jesus crying "It is finished," and yielding up His spirit in death.

The theory seems to me to clearly present God as being in a posture on one hand of being FOR man, yet also AGAINST man; of God in love desiring to free man of the guilt of sin, yet also in respect to His holiness, holding our sins against us. This view definitely, by some definition, perceives a conflict within God that is not merely a matter of His insistence that sinful man be answerable to the demands of the law, but pits God's holiness against His love, whereas, it is the love which God IS that constitutes His holiness. It is the perfection of His love that makes Him holy.

The theory boils down to God as a God of love desiring to solve the disconnect between Himself and man, yet, as a holy God, insisting that there can be no solution without His holiness being propitiated, i.e., He has been grossly offended by our sin, and only a retaliatory act of exacting sufficient suffering from man can He then provide for Himself the righteous ground for no longer imputing sin to us.

Rather than seeing man in conflict with God and himself, this view perceives God in conflict within Himself. Allow me to further explain: In other words, the above theory has God providing a righteous/ethical GROUND upon which He can allow the POSSIBILITY of granting forgiveness, for the contemporary theory holds that only a ground or basis has been established by Christ's suffering and death, but that ground does not guarantee the removal of sin-imputation (the reckoning of sin against a man by God) for any individual. Man, according to this view, must still exercise his will to receive what the ground makes possible, that is, in order to make the atonement effective for himself.

This assumption seems to fly in the face of Paul's very careful wording of the nature of the atonement as recorded in 2 Corinthians Five. I believe the following is a Pauline gem of insight that takes us into the very heart of where God is coming from in giving His Son for our redemption, reconciliation, salvation and glorification. Paul writes: "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, NOT imputing our sins against us." The popular, extant perception of the nature of the atonement particularly in western Christendom, is that God was in Christ providing a basis upon which He might NO LONGER impute sin to us.

That's not at all what Paul wrote. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself from a position of not imputing/reckoning/considering/taking account of our sins against us. Rather than God needing to be reconciled to man by the blood of Christ, God proceeded from a place of being already conciliatory, and by that refusal to hold our sins against us, He reconciled US to Himself. As you once acknowledged to me, the New Testament writers never speaks of God being reconciled to man, just the opposite.

Man is in a state of alienation, enmity, and hostility toward God blinded by our ignorance of the grand purpose of His love which included our being penned up in disobedience, that He might have mercy upon us all. Jesus, in a moment of profound intimacy with the Father utters the truth re: the human condition, that is that we know not what we do, especially in the infamy of crucifying God's beloved Son.

It is from this ignorance of the human heart re: what God is up to, that is at the heart of our enmity toward, our estrangement and alienation from, and our hostility against our Father and Creator. Paul agrees with Jesus that we are engaged in evil works because of the ignorance of our hearts. We are the ones in need of reconciliation, not God. Pardon me for being repetitive on that point.

Hebrews speaks of the efficacy of the blood of Christ as directed to our hearts—to our defiled consciences. It is not a matter of God's conscience needing the sprinkling of the blood, but ours. Add to this, Jesus teaching the disciples what the shedding of His blood, and the breaking of His body was for. It was for us, not for God. "This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood which is shed FOR YOU. Take drink ye all of it." And, “This is my body which is broken FOR YOU."

I had a soul-shaking epiphany one day when considering these things. In a time of intense reflection, suddenly I remembered a verse from (I think, if I'm recalling correctly at this moment) the Book of Leviticus: "I have given YOU the blood upon the altar." When that happened, I hadn't read the Book of Leviticus in years, yet lodged deep back in my memory, the Spirit of Truth brought it out for me to understand that the provision of the blood was for me, that God had no need to be cleansed of enmity toward me.

Here is what I believe: On the cross, the fulness of the Godhead was bodily present in Jesus as the Son of God, but also the totality of humanity was present in Him as the Son of Man. There Deity and humanity met, and the conciliatory God won over the alienated heart of mankind in Christ, and broke the rebellion of our hearts. The Greek has a especially rich nuance in the passage that reads in conventional translations along this line: "For while we were enemies, God reconciled us by the death of His Son." The Greek reads even with greater impact: "For while we were (still) being enemies, God...."

I say that in Christ, as the Son of Man, all men were present at the cross because in the same context of the verse I quoted from 2 Corinthians Five, Paul writes that "we conclude, that if one died for all, therefore all died." That could only be so if Jesus' humanness was the summation of all of ours. All of mankind was gathered up in Him with all our sins. At the moment when He cried, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me," he gathered together in His agony, the essence of the human condition which is the collective unconsciousness of man—that of being forsaken by God.

Then, light broke through to His tortured soul and we were reconciled to God as He, in faith, committed His Spirit to His Father; that even such horror as the Father had subjected Him, was part of the perfect love-plan that would lead all mankind into the glorification of their humanity in Christ. There was the grand crisis summed up in that moment, beyond my ability to fully understand or explain.

So I dearly value the blood of Christ. Without that blood, I would be forever estranged from God in the ignorance of my heart, continuing to be engaged in wicked deeds. Western Fundamentalism has added so much to what is required for a person to be in good standing theologically with the church. We find nothing of that kind of narrow qualification in the early church. I stand upon the apostles creed, and ask why is it that the earliest definition of creedal substance cannot be the basis of Christian fellowship.

We have given too much authority of especially two figures in church history, namely, Tertullian and Augustine who were both VERY conflicted men. Much of Reformation theology stems directly from the influence of Augustine's writings upon Luther. In his theology, there is a great mixture of truth and error. He (Augustine) was a man who did not know the Greek of the New Testament, and in fact, acknowledged that he hated the Greek language. It was particularly Augustine that put a spin upon grace that still today boxes in our concept of how grace works.

Catholic theology affirms the necessity of the grace of God for salvation, and even lately, the Vatican admitted to the truth that Luther held forth, of man receiving grace by faith alone, BUT the spin they put upon it comes directly from Augustine. Very clever spin indeed. Only the grace of God can save us, and that grace comes to us by faith, but said grace is present only in the sacraments of the church. There is where most Catholics place their faith, in the accessibility of grace in the sacraments.

Romanism speaks of grace being available to us through "the merits of Jesus Christ," as if merit has any place in the relationship of Christ to the Father. Protestantism never fully broke free from that kind of perverse theological spin. In Catholicism, it's the church by its sacraments that makes salvation work. Among the broad stream of evangelicalism, it's our decision for Christ, that makes the grace work, rather than grace effecting our decision.

It is amazing that evangelicals can accept rank limited atonement-Calvinists as brethren (even Arminians do so, though believing the Calvinist to be mistaken) while insisting that biblical restorationists are heretics. That amazes me, frankly.

John GavazzoniJohn Gavazzoni
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